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Priest rejected by Buffalo Diocese became serial child abuser in Pa. parishes

Exhibit A in the blockbuster Pennsylvania grand jury report on clergy sexual abuse is an Erie priest who grew up in Dunkirk and originally wanted to join the Buffalo Diocese priesthood.

The Rev. Chester J. Gawronski admitted possibly molesting as many as 41 boys, sometimes under the guise of teaching them how to perform a “cancer check,” according to the report. It goes on to describe how church leaders concealed the abuses for nearly two decades and allowed Gawronski to continue to serve in churches.

The grand jury report, released last week, found that 300 priests had abused more than 1,000 children in six dioceses across Pennsylvania.

Gawronski’s case is featured prominently in the report, with several references to secret church documents about his history of abuse that were obtained through a 2016 subpoena.

Gawronski, 69, who now lives in Arizona, is part of a large Catholic family that was active in St. Mary Church, now known as St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, in Dunkirk. Gawronski was especially involved in the parish: In 1968, the year he graduated from Cardinal Mindszenty High School, he received the church’s “Outstanding Catholic Youth Award.”

"Much of what has already been written is not quite accurate," said one of Gawronski's brothers, who served for many years as a Dunkirk Common Council member, when asked about the grand jury report. Gawronski could not be reached for comment by The Buffalo News.

Gawronski planned to become a priest in the Buffalo Diocese, but diocesan officials rejected his application, according to Daniel Bauer, who applied at the same time.

Bauer remembers his parents driving him and Gawronski from Dunkirk for an interview at the diocese’s minor seminary on Dodge Street. Bauer said he had never met Gawronski before when a Buffalo priest called his parents and asked if they could pick up Gawronski, who didn't have a ride, on their way into Buffalo.

“The staff on Dodge Street must have picked up on some proclivity and totally rejected him,” recalled Bauer, who was accepted to the Buffalo seminary but did not become a priest. “He then applied to the Erie Diocese and was immediately accepted. He was sent to St. Mary's College (Seminary) in St. Mary, Kentucky.”

Gawronski’s intention to join the priesthood in Buffalo was confirmed by a priest who had served at the former St. Mary Church in the 1970s. The priest said he didn’t know why Gawronski ended up in the Erie Diocese.

Gawronski began molesting boys soon after his ordination in 1976, according to the grand jury report.

One victim notified the diocese in 1986 that Gawronski had fondled and masturbated him multiple times from 1976 to 1977,  under the pretext of showing the victim, who was 13 at the time, how to check for cancer.

By 1987, the diocese was aware of as many as 20 Gawronski victims, the grand jury wrote.

“In April 1987, Gawronski freely confessed to numerous instances of sexual abuse. He was sent to Chicago for psychological evaluations but denied any problems with boys,” the report said. “In some instances, entire families of young boys were molested by Gawronski.”

One family complained that Gawronski forced three boys at a camp to strip naked, gather in a circle and undergo Gawronski's cancer check.

Gawronski was placed on a temporary leave of absence in 1987.

Memos and letters show how diocesan administrators tried to keep the abuses under wraps. The head of the diocese personnel office wrote to one parent of a victim urging the parent “to refrain from probing for any more information about past events as it may raise undue concern and attention on the part of people who aren’t involved.”

The same administrator, the Rev. Glenn Whitman, exhorted in a separate internal memo on the same day to another priest: “I can’t stress enough the necessity for discretion in this matter. It is obvious at this time that legal action isn’t pending, or being considered. Undue attention or publication of this information to other families, or other priests would be harmful and certainly unnecessary. I know I can rely on you and your wisdom to avoid the dissemination of this information.”

Despite being put on leave, Gawronski was allowed to wear his priestly collar and engage with the public as a priest.

The grand jury report criticizes Bishop Donald Trautman for allowing Gawronski to stay in ministry and reassigning him multiple times.

Trautman, a priest of the Buffalo Diocese, took over as Erie bishop in 1990. Prior to Erie, Trautman served as auxiliary bishop and vicar general of the Buffalo Diocese, positions in which he would have had a major role in personnel decisions, including reassigning priests who had been accused of sexual abuse.

In Erie, the report said that Trautman received additional complaints in 1995 about Gawronski and that by 1996 “there was no possible doubt that Gawronski had spent most of his priesthood preying on the vulnerable.”

Nonetheless, Trautman in 1996 approved Gawronski’s request to hear confessions for people with disabilities. A year later, Trautman thanked Gawronski in a letter “for all that you have done for God’s people.”

Trautman assigned Gawronski to Erie facilities: Hamot Hospital in 1992; to St. Ann Church in 1995; and as chaplain of St. Mary’s Home in 2001.

Trautman, in a lengthy response to the grand jury report, said that all of Gawronski's abuses occurred before he became bishop, that he denied Gawronski's requests to return to a parish, and that he eventually had Gawronski removed as a priest.

"From the day I took office as Bishop of the Diocese of Erie, I did my best to correct the sin of sex abuse," Trautman wrote. "I personally met with and counseled abuse victims. I removed sixteen offenders from active ministry, including priests that preyed on young Seminarians."

One of Gawronski’s victims wrote to Trautman in 2002 urging the bishop to publicize the names of pedophile priests and to ensure offending priests are reported to law enforcement.

Trautman’s response to the victim in a letter was to state that he had never transferred an accused priest from parish to parish as had happened in other dioceses. Trautman also scolded the victim for going to the press rather than contacting him and argued that the victim was 14 years old when the abuse happened, not 11 as had been stated in a newspaper article, according to the grand jury report.

It wasn’t until 2004, two years after the American bishops adopted a “zero tolerance” policy regarding clergy abusers, that Trautman wrote a letter to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome to request Gawronski’s removal from the priesthood, which happened in 2006.

The grand jury report noted that the private letter was the only “full and fair accounting of Gawronski’s crimes.”

“It occurred fifteen years after the Diocese received the first report of child sexual abuse and only occurred after immense external pressure was place on the Diocese by press accounts and litigation,” the report concluded.

As Pennsylvania investigates dioceses, N.Y. prosecutors stay bystanders

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